My Pain in the Neck

On the Thursday before Memorial Day weekend, I was playing with my kids, when I felt a severe pain in my shoulder and neck. The pain subsided quickly and I really didn’t think anything of it.

Next morning, my shoulder was sore and I felt like I had a crick in my neck. But before the holiday weekend was over, I was at the emergency room in severe pain unable to raise my arm. The pain on a scale of 1 to 10 was about a 20. I’m not a wuss. I’ve had two c-sections, a dry socket, chronic appendicitis and an appendectomy and a tonsillectomy with more than 50 stitches (most tonsillectomies have none to 5 stitches YOW!) so I know pain and my level 10 pain (”the worst you’ve ever felt” says the doctor) is quite a bit higher than other folk’s level 10.

Now, I have a medical degree from Google with a fellowship from WebMD (meaning I am an expert internet researcher and not much else) so I went into the ER thinking that maybe I had a torn rotator cuff. The ER was hopping busy and I never saw a doctor but did see a physician’s assistant. She took x-rays and agreed that it was likely a rotator cuff tear. I was given Vicodin and prescription strength Ibuprofen and a muscle relaxer.

What are the symptoms of a torn rotator cuff?

  • Pain when moving your arm
  • Pain at night
  • Weakness in your shoulder

I was also experiencing a bit of neck pain but it was minor in comparison with the shoulder pain and I really thought nothing of it. More interesting was the fact that I had numbness and tingling in a direct line that I could trace from my shoulder to my thumb.

Within 2 days, I was trying desperately to get an appointment with my orthopedic but they were booked up for several days. I started rationing the pain pills because they only gave me 5 day supply and my appointment would be on day 5 exactly. This was not necessarily a good idea but I had no other recourse except to make it work out or go back to the emergency room for another 6 hour visit. By doctor day, I was desperate for relief.

My orthopedics’ office is a large practice with several doctors who specialize in different things. MY doc is the knee and shoulder guy. I like him a lot and knew he’d be able to help.

He walks in and starts asking questions. I told him about the incredible pain and then I mentioned the tingling. That stopped him in his tracks. He said, “This isn’t a shoulder problem. This is a neck problem. If I were to guess, I’m thinking maybe a rupture or bulging disc at C4 or C5.” Then, he ordered X-Rays.

The x-rays revealed an impingement at the between the C4 and C5. He prescribed more Vicodin and physical therapy. If it wasn’t better in 3 weeks at a re-check, he’d order an MRI.

Symptoms of a pinched nerve in your neck includes neck, shoulder, and arm pain, tingling or burning sensations, and numbness. Weakness is also possible and complaints of loss of strength and trouble with lifting the arm, bending the elbow, or holding onto objects are not unheard of.

Folks, I had every single one of these symptoms.

I started physical therapy the next day after my doctor’s appointment. My PT was all about getting the muscles in my neck to relax as the therapist suspected that most of my pain was related to spasm rather than the actual impingement (the fancy term for pinched nerve). But PT days were hell for me; they would often leave me in more pain than I started in and the next day would have me a level 10 pain that would only help a little or sometimes not at all.

There were a few nights after the initial diagnosis that I actually considered going back to the emergency room because I couldn’t sleep because I was in so much pain. After 5 days, I called the doctor’s office again and told them that despite 3 PT appointments and the medicine that was prescribed, I was still in so much pain and didn’t see any improvement.

They ordered the MRI and moved my care to the team physiatrist – a doctor who specializes in pain management. He would get the MRI results and consult with the other doctors on the team if necessary to decide what the next step in my care should be. Meanwhile, they were refilling my narcotic pain reliever and wanted me to continue PT.

I’ve never had an MRI. I was asked several times if I were claustrophobic and until the moment that I was stuck in that tube, I honestly thought I wasn’t.

The MRI was an older one where you’re laid down on a table and pushed into a tube. The tube was literally 2 inches from my nose.

The first time they pulled me out of the tube, it was to adjust some cords attached to the headphones that were put on to protect my ears.

The second time they pulled me out, it was because my arm started twitching from being in such a weird position on my back and I grabbed it and messed up the cord again.

The third time they pulled me out of the tube is because I told them that if they didn’t get me out, I’d throw up in the machine.

They scheduled me for open MRI the next morning. That was much better and didn’t take as long either.

Fast forward a couple weeks, the pain is actually getting better. The most relief I’ve gotten is from the TENS machine being used in PT. Secondly and probably more importantly is my husband giving me a massage on the nights that I don’t have PT. I saw great improvement after those started.

By the time that I see the physiatrist, my daily pain level is averaging around a 6. Much better than the 10 I was experiencing days before. The physiatrist looked at the MRI report and told me that I did indeed have a pinched nerve. But now we knew it was caused by a bulging disc in my neck – the C5 disc to be exact.

His suggestion was an epidural.

The epidural was such a non-issue that it’s hard for me to even discuss.  I mean it was so easy and relatively painless.  I can’t say that it was a miracle cure but I can say that lowered my daily pain level down to about a 4 or 5.  The worst part of it was when I sat up too fast and got an epidural headache.  That was NOT pleasant but it went away quickly.

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